Iran dominates in Iraq after U.S. ‘handed the country over’

BAGHDAD — When the United States invaded Iraq 14 years ago to topple Saddam Hussein, it saw Iraq as a potential cornerstone of a democratic and Western-facing Middle East, and vast amounts of blood and treasure — about 4,500 American lives lost, more than $1 trillion spent — were poured into the cause.

But from Day 1, Iran saw something else: a chance to make a client state of Iraq, a former enemy against which it fought a brutal war in the 1980s. If it succeeded, Iraq would never again pose a threat, and it could serve as a jumping-off point to spread Iranian influence around the region. In that contest, Iran won, and the United States lost.

Over the past three years, Americans have focused on the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq, returning more than 5,000 troops to the country and helping to force the militants out of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul. But Iran never lost sight of its mission: to dominate its neighbor so thoroughly that Iraq could never again endanger it militarily, and to use the country to effectively control a transportation corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean.

The country’s dominance over Iraq has heightened sectarian tensions around the region, with Sunni states and American allies like Saudi Arabia mobilizing to oppose Iranian expansionism. But Iraq is only part of Iran’s expansion project; it has also used soft and hard power to extend its influence in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and throughout the region.

Iran is a Shiite state, and Iraq, a Shiite majority country, was ruled by an elite Sunni minority before the American invasion. The roots of the schism between Sunnis and Shiites, going back almost 1,400 years, lie in differences over the rightful leaders of Islam after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. But these days, it is about geopolitics as much as religion, with the divide expressed by different states that are adversaries, led by Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other.

Iran’s influence in Iraq is diverse, projecting into military, political, economic and cultural affairs. Politically, Iran has a large number of allies in Iraq’s Parliament, who can help secure its goals. And its influence over the choice of interior minister, through a militia and political group the Iranians built up in the 1980s to oppose Saddam Hussein, has given it substantial control over that ministry and the federal police.

Perhaps most crucial, Parliament passed a law last year that effectively made the constellation of Shiite militias a permanent fixture of Iraq’s security forces. This ensures Iraqi funding for the groups while effectively maintaining Iran’s control over some of the most powerful units.

Partly in an effort to contain Iran, the United States has indicated that it will keep troops behind in Iraq after the battle against the Islamic State. American diplomats have worked to emphasize the government security forces’ role in the fighting, and to shore up Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has seemed more open to the United States than to Iran.

Analysts and Iranian officials say Iran’s most pressing ambition is to exploit the chaos of the region to project influence across Iraq and beyond. Eventually, analysts say, Iran could use the trans-portation corridor it has established on the ground, through militias under its control, to ship weapons and supplies to proxies in Syria, where Iran is an important backer of President Bashar Assad, and to Lebanon and its ally Hezbollah.

“Iran is smarter than America,” said Nijat al-Taie, a Sunni member of the provincial council and an outspoken critic of Iran, which she calls the instigator of several assassination attempts against her. “They achieved their goals on the ground. America didn’t protect Iraq. They just toppled the regime and handed the country over to Iran.”

Iran’s emphasis on defending the Shiite faith has led some here to conclude that its ultimate goal is to bring about an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq. But there is a persistent sense that it just would not work in Iraq, which has a much larger native Sunni population and tradition. Besides, Iraq’s clerics in Najaf, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the world’s pre-eminent Shiite spiritual leader, oppose the Iranian system.

But Iran is taking steps to translate militia power into political power, and militia leaders have begun political organizing before next year’s parliamentary elections.

In April, Qais al-Khazali, a Shiite militia leader, delivered a speech to an audience of Iraqi college students, railing against the United States and the nefarious plotting of Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Mr. Khazali, whose political and militia organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, is deeply connected with Iran, has been on a speaking tour on campuses across Iraq. This has raised fears that Iran is trying not only to deepen its influence within Iraqi education, but also to transform militias into outright political and social organizations, much as it did with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“It’s another type of Iranian infiltration and the expansion of Iran’s influence,” said Beriwan Khailany, a lawmaker and member of Parliament’s higher-education committee. “Iran wants to control the youth and to teach them the Iranian beliefs through Iraqis who are loyal to Iran.”

Prime Minister Abadi now finds himself in a difficult position. If he makes any move that can be seen as confrontational toward Iran or as positioning himself closer to the United States, it could place a cloud over his political future. Mr. Abadi, who took office in 2014 with the support of both the United States and Iran, has seemed more emboldened to push back against Iranian pressure since President Trump took office.

He has also begun discussing with the United States the terms of a deal to keep American forces behind after the Islamic State is defeated. Some are seeing an American troop commitment as a chance to revisit the 2011 withdrawal of United States forces that seemingly opened a door for Iran.

Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador in Iraq from 2007 to 2009, said that if the United States left again after the Islamic State was defeated, “it would be effectively just giving the Iranians a free rein.” But many Iraqis say the Iranians already have free rein. And while the Trump administration has indicated that it will pay closer attention to Iraq as a means to counter Iran, the question is whether it is too late.

“Iran is not going to sit silent and do nothing,” said Sami al-Askari, a senior Shiite politician who has good relationships with both the Iranians and Americans. “They have many means. Frankly, the Americans can’t do anything.”

– edited from an article by Tim Arango in The New York Times, July 15, 2017
PeaceMeal, July/August 2017

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Iran’s voters sent a message to the hard-liners

Robin Wright

Iranians revel in political humor. As election results began to show that long-entrenched hard-liners were losing, a new joke circulated in Tehran: Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had called Secretary of State John Kerry with an offer: “John, we have just succeeded in defeating our hard-liners. Let us know if you want advice on how to beat Mr. Trump.”

Iran’s twin polls — for the Majlis, or parliament, and for the Assembly of Experts, which chooses the country’s Supreme Leader — weren’t quite that straightforward. Before the vote, most reformists were disqualified by the government’s mercurial vetting process. Voters countered by rejecting big-name hard-liners who had blocked reforms at home and tried to stymie the nuclear deal with the outside world. The result is a wave of new faces in Iranian politics; only about a third of the winners are incumbents in parliament.

The number of women almost doubled, and younger candidates also won more seats. The largest bloc will be made up of centrists, moderate conservatives, and independents, with a few real reformists (who often won the highest vote counts). Within the revolutionary confines of the Islamic Republic, it was a big deal.

In Tehran, all of the city’s thirty seats went to the so-called List of Hope, nominated by the Universal Coalition of Reformists. Even the leading hard-liner, a former speaker of parliament connected by politics and family to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, lost his seat. Conservatives and a smattering of hard-liners fared better in the provinces and will still have a large parliamentary presence. But they lost the guaranteed dominance that they have enjoyed since 2004.

The vote was a major boost for President Rouhani, who has initiated the most serious reŽngagement with the outside world since the 1979 revolution. He has also pledged to reform Iran’s ailing economy and increase individual freedoms. “Kudos to the history-making nation of Iran,” he tweeted on his English-language account. “Let’s open a new chapter based on domestic talents & global opportunities.” Now Rouhani has to deliver. He faces reŽlection next year.

The election certainly offers no guarantee that Rouhani will make progress navigating Iran’s toxic political environment, but at least the election ousted members of parliament who had repeatedly blocked his initiatives. Some had publicly called Iranian diplomats “traitors,” or vowed to “bury them under cement” for negotiating with the United States. The atmospherics — and the signals from the youth-dominated electorate — reflect an overwhelming interest in shifting course on both domestic and foreign policy.

The election also marked something of a comeback for former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who orchestrated constitutional changes and economic reforms after the death of the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1989. Rafsanjani had been marginalized in a power struggle with the current Supreme Leader. In 2000, after serving as President and as parliament’s speaker for almost a decade, he was humiliated in a run for parliament when he lost, disputed the vote, and then withdrew, largely to save political face. For this election, Rafsanjani organized a coalition slate for the Assembly of Experts—and won the largest number of votes. His decisive victory could position him to lead the body again. It’s widely believed that he covets the job of Supreme Leader — a lifetime appointment — even though he’s older than the current leader.

In contrast, the hard-line chairman of the Assembly of Experts, Mohammad Yazdi, lost his seat — not just against one rival, but in a field that allocated sixteen slots for Tehran representatives. Mohammad Mesbah-Yazdi, who had been the spiritual mentor to former President Ahmadinejad, was also voted out of office.

One of the most interesting politicians to emerge from the election is Mohammad Reza Aref, who received the most votes of any parliamentary candidate for Tehran. Aref is the leader of the List of Hope and a former vice-president and presidential candidate. He stepped aside, in a field of eight, to help Rouhani win in 2013.

Hard-liners still control the judiciary, as well as the security forces, military and various intelligence agencies. They are unlikely to cede powers easily. But Rouhani and Aref are now key players — and allies — in two of the three branches of government.

Iranian politics are ever evolving. In this election, the sharp edges that have defined internal tensions over the past decade have been dulled. Iranians voters have signalled that they want relief, not more political infighting at home or confrontation with the outside world.

– edited from New Yorker, March 1, 2016
PeaceMeal, March/April 2016)

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Iran must join fight against terrorism, Vatican says

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis held talks with Iran’s president at the Vatican on January 26, calling on Tehran to play a key role in stopping the spread of terrorism as Iran tries to improve its image in the global arena following an agreement on its nuclear program. The pontiff warmly clasped the hand of President Hassan Rouhani in the first official call paid on a pontiff by an Iranian president since 1999. They held 40 minutes of private talks before Rouhani met with other top Vatican officials.The talks “delved into the conclusion and application of the nuclear accord, and the important role that Iran is called upon to play, together with other countries of the region, was highlighted,” the Holy See said. It added that that role should “foster adequate political solutions to the issues plaguing the Middle East, fighting the spread of terrorism and arms trafficking.”

The “cordial” talks also stressed common spiritual values, the statement said. Usually it’s the pope who asks his audience to pray for him. This time, after the two men spoke with the help of Italian and Farsi language translators, it was the guest who asked the pope for prayers. “I ask you to pray for me,” Rouhani said.

The Vatican meeting was a key part of the Iranian effort to take a more prominent place on the world stage after the nuclear deal with Western powers. Iran, which agreed to limit its nuclear activities in exchange for an end to economic sanctions, is eager to carve out a bigger role in mediating Middle East conflicts.

Francis’ papacy has emphasized mediation and conflict- resolution, including his role in helping Cuba and the United States to normalize their relations.

Pope Francis gave Rouhani a medal depicting St. Martin giving his cloak to a poor man in the cold, describing the saint’s act as “a sign of unsolicited brotherhood.” Rouhani brought a gift of a hand-made rug that he said was made in the Iranian holy city of Qom.

Rouhani headed to France the following day on his four-day European trip, seeking to boost Iran’s image abroad as well as to rehabilitate economic ties with a continent that had been a big trade partner before the sanctions.

– edited from an article by Frances D’Emilio, The Associated Press, January 26, 2016
PeaceMeal Jan/February 2016

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‘Death to America’ slogan refers to U.S. policies, says Iran Ayatollah

TEHRAN, Iran — The slogan “Death to America” is not aimed at the American people but at American policies, Iran’s supreme leader said in comments reported on his official website Nov. 3. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei discussed the slogan while meeting with Iranian students ahead of the anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979. Militant students stormed the embassy and took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

The two countries have had no diplomatic relations since then. However, current President Hassan Rouhani has made efforts to improve relations, including the landmark nuclear agreement reached with world powers this past summer.

Khamenei said the “aim of the slogan is not death to American people. The slogan means death to U.S. policies and arrogance.” It has “strong support” in Iran, he said.

Khamenei and hard-liners in the Iranian government remain deeply suspicious of the United States and view its policies as a threat to their country. He reiterated his warning that the U.S. is not to be trusted, despite the nuclear deal reached with the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany. The agreement promises Tehran relief from crippling economic sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

Khamenei said the U.S. “will not hesitate,” if given a chance, to destroy Iran. “The nature of the U.S. attitude is continuation of the same hostile aims from the past, and the nation will not forget this,” he said.

– The Associated Press, November 3, 2015
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2015

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Iran nuclear deal survives as Dems block disapproval vote

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats voted Sept. 10 to uphold the hard-fought nuclear accord with Iran, overcoming ferocious Republican opposition and delivering President Barack Obama a legacy-making victory on his top foreign policy priority. A disapproval resolution for the agreement fell two votes short of the 60 needed to move forward, as most Democratic and independent senators banded together against it.

Although House Republicans continued to pursue eleventh- hour strategies to derail the multi-national accord and Senate Republicans promised a re-vote, the outcome all but guaranteed that the disapproval legislation would not reach Obama’s desk. As a result, the nuclear deal will move forward unchecked by Congress, an improbable win by Obama in the face of unanimous opposition from Republicans who control Capitol Hill, GOP candidates seeking to replace him in the Oval Office, the state of Israel, and its allied lobbyists in the U.S., the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Beginning September 17, Obama will be free to start scaling back U.S. sanctions to implement the agreement negotiated by Iran, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China. The accord aims to constrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for hundreds of billions of dollars in relief from international sanctions.

 “This vote is a victory for diplomacy, for American national security, and for the safety and security of the world,” President Obama said in a statement. “Going forward, we will turn to the critical work of implementing and verifying this deal so that Iran cannot pursue a nuclear weapon.”

The Obama administration was preparing to unveil a new office for coordinating its implementation, to be led by veteran foreign service officer, Stephen Mull. The outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Poland, Mull previously served as executive secretary of the State Department (2010-12) and, most critically, as senior adviser to then-Undersecretary of State William Burns (2008-10), when Burns was the lead U.S. Iran nuclear negotiator and the United States was helping negotiate U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929 that sanctioned Iran over its nuclear program.

Frustrated Republicans issued grim warnings that the deal could serve only to enrich Iran and leave it closer to building a bomb when constraints begin to ease in 10 or 15 years. They promised that the vote would not be the Senate’s last word.

In the House, Republicans had not given up on blocking the deal against all odds. After backtracking on plans to vote on the disapproval resolution when it began to look short of support in the Senate, House Republicans lined up votes on several related measures. They agreed on a party-line 245-186 vote to a measure specifying that Obama had not properly submitted all documents related to the accord for review by Congress, and therefore a 60-day review clock had not really started.

Yet the House Republican maneuvers seemed to have little chance of bearing results, and White House officials sarcastically branded them the “Tortilla Coast gambit,” a reference to a Capitol Hill restaurant where tea party lawmakers plan their moves.

In fact, opponents never had much chance of blocking the deal on Capitol Hill, partly because of a complicated congressional review process that gave unusual power to Democratic minorities in the House and Senate who could secure a win for Obama simply by upholding his veto of a disapproval resolution. It was widely expected in the days after the nuclear deal was signed July 14 that Obama would have to use his veto power.

Despite poll numbers showing significant public concern about the agreement, opposition never seemed to catch fire among Democrats or voters over the summer. In the end, instead of registering unified opposition to the deal, congressional Republicans turned the debate into the latest occasion for infighting within the party and between the House and Senate.

Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fiercely opposed the deal with Iran, Siamak Morsadegh, the only Jewish member of Iran’s parliament, does back it. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Morsadegh, who is a surgeon and director of the Dr. Sapir Hospital and Charity Center in Tehran, stated: “We Jews have never seen ourselves as separate from our nation. We experience the same things that other Iranians experience. I don’t think that the European and American people are completely informed about just how inhumane sanctions against Iran truly are. They have made the lives of normal Iranians extremely difficult.

“For instance, Iran’s exclusion from international financial markets has led to a desperate shortage of absolutely essential medications. That has resulted in an enormous deterioration of quality of life for many sick people, even children, and especially cancer patients. The lifting of sanctions and anything else that helps our nation move forward will also positively affect the lives of Jews in Iran.”

Peter Beinart, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, wrote that although AIPAC didn’t succeed in killing the nuclear deal, it helped kill the prospect of a warming relationship between the United States and Iran. “To be fair,” he wrote, “there are also powerful forces in Tehran that want to keep the U.S.-Iranian relationship icy. Iran’s conservatives, who have long used the supposed American threat to legitimize their brutal rule, know a warming relationship with Washing-ton could erode their power. But that’s precisely why Iran’s democratic dissidents want the nuclear deal to lead to some-thing more. And it’s part of the reason Americans should too.”

– edited from The Associated Press, Deutsche Welle, Haaretz and
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2105

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Iran nuke deal depends on verification, not trust

WASHINGTON — The success of the historic accord reached on July 14 to prevent Iran from using its nuclear program to secretly build weapons will hinge on the most intrusive international monitoring system ever devised by the United Nations nuclear watchdog to detect cheating. Designed to scrutinize every part of Tehran’s program, the system will rely on scores of U.N. inspectors, satellite imagery, and intelligence from the United States and other nations.

 Remote cameras, tamper-proof seals and other sensing devices would send encrypted data from Iranian nuclear facilities, including sites that previously have been off-limits, via the Internet to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a group that funds nuclear arms control initiatives, said, “These are fiber optic seals that, if tampered with, will transmit a signal instantaneously back to IAEA headquarters.”

The 159-page agreement with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, China and France — plus Germany was reached after two years of negotiations. “This deal is not built on trust; it’s built on verification,” President Barack Obama stated. “Put simply, the organization responsible for the inspections, the IAEA, will have access where necessary, when necessary.”

The system, which the IAEA is geared up to implement over the coming months, is designed to verify that, in return for a lifting of crushing economic sanctions, Iran implements restrictions intended to ensure that it would need a year to produce enough nuclear material for one bomb. That period would give the IAEA enough time to detect the deception and the international community to respond, according to U.S. officials.

The system’s most invasive provisions would last for up to 25 years, while other inspection measures would remain indefinitely under an additional protocol that the IAEA maintains with 126 other countries.

Thomas E. Shea, who spent 24 years at the IAEA devising safeguards for nuclear facilities, said that the inspection regime would be unprecedented in its sweep. It would not only deter Iran from violating the accord, he added, but it could dissuade other nations from covertly trying to develop weapons.

Critics, however, seized on the absence of a mechanism giving the IAEA “anywhere, anytime access” to any sites, including those controlled by the Iranian military and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, where the agency suspects banned activities might be secretly underway.

Even supporters of the deal expressed concerns, underscoring how the verification system will be one of the most heavily scrutinized parts of the agreement by a largely skeptical Congress during a 60-day review period that lawmakers will have to sign off on the deal.

As a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the international accord designed to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, Iran is barred from developing nuclear weapons in return for having access to peaceful nuclear technologies that are subject to IAEA monitoring. For 18 years, however, Iran secretly developed the capability to enrich uranium in the fissionable isotope U-235— the process that produces low-enriched uranium fuel for power plants and highly enriched uranium for weapons.

And in November 2011, the IAEA outlined evidence it said showed that Iran covertly researched the design of a missile-borne nuclear warhead. As part of the new accord, Iran agreed to end years of stonewalling and answer the agency’s questions about the project.

The IAEA has had regular access to many of Iran’s nuclear plants. They include Natanz, the industrial-size facility that houses 19,000 first-generation centrifuges — the spinning machines that enrich uranium — and Fordow, a facility buried deep beneath a mountain that houses about 2,700 centrifuges. But the agency has been denied access to others.

Under the new inspection system, inspectors will have 24-hour access to all of Iran’s declared nuclear facilities. That will allow them, aided by their monitoring tools, to track the entire enrichment process, from the mining of uranium ore to the ore’s conversion into uranium hexafluoride gas to the injection of the gas into the 5,060 centrifuges that Iran will be allowed to keep running only at Natanz.

The system will also have to ensure for 15 years that Iran produces only uranium enriched up to 3.67 percent to power a research reactor and the Arak heavy water reactor, and that it gets rid of uranium stocks of higher enrichment. A nuclear weapon requires highly enriched uranium of 90 percent U-235 or more.

The inspection system is designed on the premise that Iran — because of its history of evading IAEA safeguards — could try to circumvent the agreement’s limitations and establish a parallel but secret weapons program. That requires giving the agency access to non-nuclear facilities, including sensitive military sites, where the IAEA suspects that banned nuclear activities may be located.

U.S. officials, responding to critics’ demands for “anytime, anywhere” access, explained that no country, including the United States, could be expected to allow foreign inspectors into military bases or other top-secret sites on the spur of the moment.

The deal commits Iran to a procedure under which the inspectors must give their reasons for seeking access to a sensitive site. If a resolution can’t be reached, the matter would go to a Joint Commission that is being established to adjudicate disputes, and a majority of the panel could order Iran to comply with the IAEA’s request — a process that would take 25 days.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, which has an unacknowledged nuclear arsenal and has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, called the deal a “historic mistake.” He can be expected to pressure the United States Congress to reject the agreement. To assuage Netanyahu, the Obama administration has offered to increase military aid to Israel from $3 billion a year to $4.5 billion a year.

– edited from McClatchy Washington Bureau and RT News
PeaceMeal, July/August 2015

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Republican senators go nuclear with missive to Iran

It’s hardly news that many Republicans in Congress are deter-mined to oppose any agreement between Iran and six world powers on the future of that country’s nuclear program. That was evident the first week of March when they rallied around Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an opponent of any foresee-able deal, who denounced the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations in a speech before a joint session of Congress.

Netanyahu spoke at the invitation of House Speaker John A. Boehner (Rep.-Ohio), who didn’t consult with the White House or Democrats in Congress before issuing the invitation. The White House derided the invitation as a breach of traditional protocol that deliberately sought to undercut the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy.

But the following week they moved beyond principled opposi-tion to outright meddling, when 47 Republican senators wrote an open letter to the “leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” warning in effect that any deal negotiated by the Obama administration might not be adhered to by subsequent presidents if it were not approved by Congress.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif dismissed the letter as “mostly a propaganda ploy” that “implies that the United States is not trustworthy.”

The letter, drafted by freshman Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, begins with the insulting observation that “you may not fully understand our constitutional system” and then says that, unless an agreement were approved by Congress, the signers would regard it as “nothing more than an agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei” that could be revoked by a future president “with a stroke of a pen.”

The senators’ explanation vastly understates the importance (and longevity) of “executive agreements” concluded by presidents without congressional approval. And while it’s true that Congress or a future president might be able to scuttle an agreement — for example, by reimposing sanctions on Iran — an understanding reached during the Obama administration would otherwise be binding on Obama’s successors.

But what is most objectionable about the senators’ letter is neither its condescending tone nor its legal analysis. It’s the fact that the letter injects the senators into ongoing international negotiations that are properly the prerogative of the executive branch — with the obvious intention of subverting those negotiations. Not only does this intervention put the senators on the same side as Iranian hard-liners who are opposed to a deal, but it will make it easier for Iran to blame the United States if the talks fail to produce an agreement.

In the past, individual members of Congress have criticized foreign policies being pursued by the president and even met with foreign leaders the president sought to isolate. But this letter is an exponentially more offensive encroachment on presidential authority.

If an agreement is reached and the terms aren’t to Congress’s liking, members will have opportunities to express their concern and to seek to undo it. But negotiating with foreign nations is the president’s job. The Republican senators’ meddling in that responsibility is outrageous.

– edited from the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post
PeaceMeal, March/April 2015

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The forgotten story of Iran Air Flight 655

Max_Fisher.jpg (4920 bytes)Max Fisher

If you walked into any high school classroom in the United States and asked the students to describe their country’s relationship with Iran, you’d probably hear words like “enemy” and “threat,” maybe “distrust” and “nuclear.” But ask them what the number 655 has to do with it, and you’d be met with silence.

Try the same thing in an Iranian classroom, asking about the United States, and you’d probably hear some of the same words. Mention the number 655, though, and it’s a safe bet that at least a few of the students would immediately know what you were talking about.

The number 655 is a flight number: Iran Air 655. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re far from alone. But you should know the story if you want to better understand why the United States and Iran so badly distrust one another and why it will be so difficult to strike a nuclear deal, as they’re attempting to do now.

The story of Iran Air 655 begins, like so much of the U.S.-Iran struggle, with the 1979 Islamic revolution. When Iraq invaded Iran the following year, the United States supported Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein against the two countries’ mutual Iranian enemy. The war dragged on for eight awful years, claiming perhaps a million lives.

Toward the end of the war, on July 3, 1988, a U.S. Navy ship called the Vincennes was exchanging fire with small Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. Navy kept ships there, and still does, to protect oil trade routes. As the American and Iranian ships skirmished, Iran Air Flight 655 took off from nearby Bandar Abbas International Airport, bound for Dubai. The airport was used by both civilian and military aircraft. The Vincennes mistook the lumbering Airbus A300 civilian airliner for a much smaller and faster F-14 fighter jet, perhaps in the heat of battle or perhaps because the flight allegedly did not identify itself. It fired two surface-to-air missiles, killing all 290 passengers and crew members on board.

The horrible incident brought Tehran closer to ending the war, but its effects have lingered much longer than that. “The shoot-down of Iran Air flight 655 was an accident, but that is not how it was seen in Tehran,” former CIA analyst and current Brookings scholar Kenneth Pollack wrote in his 2004 history of U.S.-Iran enmity, The Persian Puzzle. “The Iranian government assumed that the attack had been purposeful. ... Tehran convinced itself that Washington was trying to signal that the United States had decided to openly enter the war on Iraq’s side.”

That belief, along with Iraq’s increased use of chemical weapons against Iran, led Tehran to accept a United Nations cease-fire two months later. But it also helped cement a view in Iran, still common among hard-liners in the government, that the United States is absolutely committed to the destruction of the Islamic Republic and will stop at almost nothing to accomplish this. It is, as TIME’s Michael Crowley points out in an important piece, one of several reasons that Iran has a hard time believing it can trust the United States to ever stop short of its complete destruction.

This is not just an issue of historical grievance. It matters in immediate geopolitical terms to the efforts by President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to find their way to a nuclear deal and perhaps a first step toward detente. For any deal to work, both countries will have to trust that the other is sincere about its willingness to follow through on its promises. For the United States, that means trusting that Iran is really willing to give up any nuclear weapons ambitions and ramp down the program as promised (Washington has real, legitimate grounds to worry about this; Iran has its own history of misdeeds). For Iran, it means trusting that the United States will actually accept the Islamic Republic and coexist peacefully with it.

The eight-year war with Iraq, which is widely seen in Iran as a war against not just Hussein but his Western backers, and the downing of Iran Air Flight 655 that came near its conclusion, have convinced many in Iran that the United States simply cannot be trusted to let Iran be. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Rouhani’s boss, often appears to share this deep distrust. Khamenei and other hard-liners could scuttle any deal, and a similar drama will likely play out in Washington.

If Iran believes that the United States is so committed to its destruction that it would willingly shoot down a plane full of Iranian civilians, then Tehran has every incentive to assume we’re lying in negotiations. It also has strong incentives to try to build a nuclear weapon, or at least get close enough to deter the American invasion that it feared was coming in 1988 and perhaps again in 2002 with President George W. Bush's “axis of evil” speech.

Americans might not know about Flight 655, but Iranians surely do. They can hardly forget about it.

– The Washington Post, October 16, 2013
PeaceMeal, July/August 2014

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Iranian nuke negotiations: gaps remain, but talks continue

WASHINGTON — World powers and Iran still face significant gaps as their negotiations to curb Tehran’s nuclear program were extended four months beyond a July 20 deadline. “It is clear that we still have more work to do,” Secretary of State John Kerry said shortly before leaving Vienna. Negotiators had been holed up for weeks working on a plan to prevent Iran from building an atomic bomb but still let it develop a peaceful nuclear energy program.

New hope for an agreement soared after last year’s election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a relatively moderate leader. He won office by promising to bolster his country’s crumbling economy, in part by securing relief from bruising Western trade sanctions that punish Tehran for its nuclear ambitions.

Tehran says it needs nuclear capacity for energy and medical purposes, and hard-liners in Iran fear the talks will result in a scaling back of their country’s nuclear program. Many lawmakers in Congress, on the other hand, are deeply concerned about the Iranians’ intentions and whether they can be trusted to maintain a legitimate nuclear program. Congress is already gearing up to impose more sanctions against Iran as a way of forcing its hand.

Some critics of Iran in the region want the punishing sanctions to remain. But in nearly all of the world’s major battle zones — from Syria to Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza — Iran could hold major sway in pushing peaceful efforts, and if the nuclear talks fail now, there’s little or no reason for Tehran to listen to the West in trying to resolve such crises.

– edited from The Associated Press, July 15, 2014
PeaceMeal, July/August 2014

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Obama administration confidant lays out terms of possible final Iran nuclear deal

Robert_Einhorn.jpg (2440 bytes)Robert Einhorn, a former senior U.S. official who is well regarded by Barack Obama’s administration, has proposed parameters for a long-term nuclear agreement with Iran that would allow it to continue enriching uranium at low levels and would ask Congress to preauthorize military action if Iran violates the accord. Einhorn’s proposal, unveiled March 31 at the Brookings Institution where he is a senior fellow, seeks to marry Iran’s limited need for nuclear fuel to the scope of its nuclear infrastructure and provide confidence that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons.

Einhorn’s ideas illustrate that the fate of a long-term nuclear agreement with Iran rests not just on the negotiators meeting in Vienna, but also on how political elites in the United States and Iran approach the compromises required to reach an accord.

Einhorn is among a small number of expert validators based outside the U.S. government who will shape perceptions of an agreement, particularly on Capitol Hill, as well as influence the strategy of the U.S. negotiating team.

“We can expect that, in a comprehensive agreement, the Iranians will insist on retaining sufficient nuclear capability to give them an option to acquire nuclear weapons at some future time,” Einhorn writes. “The challenge for the United States and its partners is to construct an agreement that makes clear to the Iranians that any effort to break out of the agreement and acquire nuclear weapons would be a detectable, lengthy and risky process that would not only fail but would inevitably result in Iran paying a very high price in terms of its national interests.”

Einhorn’s technical proposals rely heavily on the analysis of the D.C.-based Institute for Science and International Security and its president, David Albright. ISIS has estimated Iran’s breakout capability: what combination of time, centrifuges and stockpiled enriched uranium the country needs to build a nuclear bomb. Under the current interim accord, Iran is estimated to have a breakout time of only two to three months.

According to ISIS, increasing the breakout timescale would require that Iran reduce the number of its operational centrifuges, cap the amount of stockpiled near-20-percent-enriched uranium hexafluoride gas, and restrict its stock of 3.5-percent-enriched uranium hexafluoride.

Other elements of an acceptable deal, according to Einhorn:

• Convert Iran’s underground uranium enrichment plant at Fordow into a research and development facility.

• Modify a heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak to greatly reduce its production of plutonium.

• Require even more stringent monitoring of the Iranian nuclear program by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Einhorn suggests that the international community could sweeten the deal by providing technical assistance for Iran’s civilian nuclear activities.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the report is Einhorn’s prescription for how the U.S. and the international community should react if Iran breaks the agreement. He suggests that the U.N. Security Council adopt a resolution stating that if Iran violates the accord, the council “would meet urgently to adopt measures necessary to head off the threat.”

The U.S. Congress, he says, should not only adopt legislation that would restore any previous sanctions that have been lifted and impose new ones, but also “give the president prior authorization to use military force in the event of clear evidence that Iran has taken steps to abandon the agreement and move toward producing nuclear weapons.”

Iran is likely to protest such legislation strenuously and may have trouble swallowing other provisions that Einhorn spells out. But Iran, he argues, does not have a strong case to complain because of its history of violating obligations to the IAEA, the six U.N. Security Council resolutions imposed against it since 2006, and the “deep and widespread suspicions” created by its “longstanding cat-and-mouse game with the international community … The burden must be on Iran to earn the international community’s trust, not the other way around.”

So far, Iranian and U.S. officials are keeping quiet about the details of their negotiations. The Americans say talks are moving forward smoothly with near constant consultation between experts. The next round of formal meetings in Vienna are scheduled for April 7 through 9.

– edited from Al Jazeera America, March 31, 2014
PeaceMeal, March/April 2014

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Breakthrough deal rolls back Iran’s nuclear program

Iran and six world powers clinched a deal on November 24 to roll back the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for initial sanctions relief, signaling the start of a game-changing rapprochement that would reduce the risk of a wider Middle East war. Aimed at easing a long festering standoff, the six-month interim pact between Iran and the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia won the critical endorsement of Iranian clerical Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The agreement, which halts Iran’s most sensitive nuclear activity — its higher-grade enrichment of uranium, was tailored as a package of confidence-building steps toward reducing decades of tension and ultimately creating a more stable, secure Middle East. In fact, the United States held previously undisclosed, separate direct talks with Iran in recent months to encourage diplomacy toward a nuclear deal, according to a senior U.S. official.

Among Iran’s concessions:

• Iran will halt construction of its nuclear reactor at Arak, which had been of special concern because it would produce plutonium, which can be used as fuel for a nuclear weapon.

• Iran agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium to 5 percent of the fissionable U-235 isotope and dismantle the equipment that allows enrichment beyond that point. It also agreed to eliminate its existing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium.

• Iran will not install new, more sophisticated centrifuges to use in the enrichment process.

• U.N. inspectors will be allowed to visit Iran’s enrichment facilities every day, a scenario that would make it very difficult for Iran to cheat.

In return, the U.S. and other world powers agreed not to impose new sanctions on Iran and will ease sanctions that have in large part crippled the Iranian economy in recent years. Current sanctions that limit Iran’s trade in gold and other precious metals, automobiles and petrochemicals will be suspended. Those moves could provide Iran with as much as $1.5 billion in revenue during the next six months. During that period, the transfer to Iran of about $4.2 billion in revenue from oil sales also will be allowed.

Much of the sanctions infrastructure, anchored by a Western embargo on Iranian crude oil and a ban on Iranian use of the international banking system, would remain in place pending a final deal aimed at removing all risk of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

The agreement, reached after long and tortuous negotiations, was met with skepticism by some members of Congress, wary of Iran’s nuclear intentions. A bipartisan group of lawmakers had been urging new sanctions, but they signaled that Congress would likely give the deal a chance to work. President Obama warned that additional sanctions could derail a permanent agreement, alienate the U.S. from allies, and risk unraveling the coalition that enabled the sanctions to be enforced in the first place.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a steady critic of the talks, denounced the agreement as a “historic mistake.” President Obama sought to reassure Netanyahu in a phone call that the United States would remain firm in its commitment to Israel.

Obama had sought to improve ties with Iran even before his first election to the White House in 2008. Washington had broken diplomatic relations with Tehran after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution to overthrow the U.S.-backed Shah and his brutal secret police. Fifty-two Americans in the U.S. Embassy were subsequently held hostage for 444 days. Relations since then have been troubled, dominated in recent years by U.S. concern over Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate elected by a landslide in June promising “constructive engagement” with the world and relief from sanctions, attempted to repair diplomatic bridges broken by his bellicose predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His success in winning the backing of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reignited negotiations. Khamenei himself, a veteran hardliner, said in a letter to President Rouhani, “This can be the basis for further intelligent actions. Without a doubt the grace of God and the prayers of the Iranian nation were a factor in this success.”

Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, an arms control organization, called the deal “historic,” pointing out that it was the first involving the U.S. and Iran since they severed diplomatic ties. “Every president since Jimmy Carter has been trying to make a deal with Iran and it looks like President Obama is the first one to succeed,” Cirincione said. “It’s a first step, but it’s a huge step.”

The timing also is helpful to Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been subjected to public criticisms. Kerry can now boast that, before his first year in the post was up, he helped to broker deals to remove Syria’s chemical arsenal and curtail Iran’s nuclear program — both moves that promise unprecedented international access to two of the world’s pariah states.

Americans back the new deal with Iran by a 2-to-1 margin and are very wary of the United States resorting to military action against Iran, even if the historic diplomatic effort falls through. According to a November 26 Reuters/Ipsos survey, 44 percent of Americans support the interim deal and 22 percent oppose it. The survey underscored a strong desire to avoid new U.S. military entanglements after long, costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 Five days after the deal was reached, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced that Tehran had invited its inspectors to visit a heavy water production plant which had been off limits for more than two years. IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said it was “for sure” that inspectors would accept the offer.

– edited from Reuters, McClatchy and The New York Times
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2013

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)